I didn’t give the use of mobile phones without a Subscriber Identification Module (SIM) cards a thought until a friend started using a smartphone without a SIM card. Seeing him use his phone for calls and text – the basic functions of traditional mobile phones – gave me a new perspective and an idea of the future. Since the advent of Internet telephony and messaging apps, I personally have made less phone call and sent less SMS through my mobile service provider as I mostly use WhatsApp as such I spend more on data subscription than airtime. So i became interested in the idea of using a mobile phone without a SIM and wanted to get the experience as I foresee SIM-less mobile phone disrupting the mobile telecommunication industry especially in Africa.
Programmable Built-in SIM Card (eSIM)
Luckily for me, I got a Motorola Droid Mini smartphone as a gift. The phone is an eSIM programmed to a Verizon wireless network. eSIM comes in the form of an integrated SIM chip that cannot and need not be removed from a device. The eSIM is sometimes called a eUICC (embedded Universal Circuit Card). The information on the eSIM will be compliant and rewritable by all operators. SIM cards are integral to mobile telephony systems and allow phone and other communication devices connect to mobile networks around the world. This carrier-independent SIM card technology is new and has not been adopted in most countries including in Nigeria where I live, as such the phone is as useful as a phone without a SIM card. However, I was able to connect the phone with other Wi-Fi enabled internet sharing devices and access the internet. With Wi-Fi technology, Mi-Fi and smartphones can be used to provide wireless high-speed Internet and network connections to a SIM-less mobile phone, as such multiple mobile devices can access the internet services of a mobile network through a device with a SIM card. For instance, a typical Android phone or MI-Fi device can give up to 10 SIMless smartphones access to a mobile network data service.
Over-the-Top (OTT) Applications and Services
As broadband internet services improve and spread across Africa, and smartphones are becoming more affordable, more people are having access to cheaper internet calls and messaging. Currently, over-the-top (OTT) voice and messaging applications like WhatsApp, Telegram and Facebook are replacing mobile network operators’ offerings such as text messaging and traditional voice calls with cheaper alternatives that mobile phone users tend to opt for, especially in Africa where mobile network operators’ voice services are expensive. An over-the-top (OTT) application is an app or service that provides a product over the Internet and bypasses traditional distribution.
The advancement of mobile technology is interesting, knowing that a few years ago, a SIM-less smartphone like mine would have been reduced to a media player without a Wi-Fi network. Then, broadband wireless internet on cellular was new and very limited in African countries, only expensive high-end smartphones had Wi-Fi hotspot functions and Mi-Fi had not been developed. It is clear that over the years, mobile telephony has drastically been being advanced and mobile technology such as broadband internet services (3G and 4G LTE), Wi-Fi, technology, Mi-Fi devices, Text messaging and softphone application (Skype, WhatsApp, Telegram) are changing the game and the way we use our mobile phones. Since Internet telephony (VoIP and text massaging) is the only way to make calls with my SIM-less phone, I connected to the internet through a WI-FI network and installed a softphone and a text messaging software. I installed both WhatsApp, Telegram and Facebook. I was able to make internet voice calls, video calls and send text messages to my contacts who also use these apps.
I am sure this is just a tip of what we can do with a SIM-less phone in the future because wireless Internet service providers (WISP) that allow subscribers to connect to their hotspots (access points) using a Wi-Fi, are springing up worldwide and countries are collaborating with companies like Googles and Facebook to connect large geographical areas to the internet through Wi-Fi. The fact that Network towers (Base Transceiver Station) responsible for carrying radio communications for GSM between the network and the mobile phone are also used for transmitting 3G/4G LTE/5G Internet signals mobile service providers can easily switch to focusing on data services alone using Wi-Fi technology to complement their internet services.
User Identification Issues
Presently, the phone’s connection to the internet was not SIM-less because it indirectly accesses the GSM network and then the internet through a device that uses a SIM. Another reason why phone call with a SIM-less phone is not entirely sim-less is that the most popular VoIP platforms, especially such as WhatsApp and Telegram accounts, are tied to SIM card, meaning every user must have an International Mobile Subscriber Identity (IMSI) – SIM/phone number to be able to use the platforms.
There are suggestions that the IMEI (International Mobile Equipment Identity) of devices can be used as user’s unique identification number instead SIM numbers. How would this workout? Once upon a time Research in Motion developed the Blackberry Messenger app that used the IMEI (International Mobile Equipment Identity) of a Blackberry mobile phone as a user’s identification. They tied the 15 digit long IMEI numbers to a shorter 8-character Personal Identity Number (PIN) for easy usage. This came with a huge disadvantage as the users automatically get a new PIN anytime they change their BlackBerry phone. The PIN was tied to the device and not the user as such as such identifies the device more than it identifies the user.
For now, the IMEI based network as suggested is most feasible for machine-to-machine (M2M) type of network, where devices communicated without human interfacing or interaction. In this kind of network, only devices identity is needed so despite the presence of a global GSM coverage, most of the future connected devises will not be equipped with SIM cards. They will be SIM-less.
Despite these restrictions, I still see a future where all communication will be done over the internets and without SIM on the side of a user. I see OTT platforms dropping the use of International Mobile Subscriber Identity (phone number) for user identity verification as multiple factor identity verification can be used. It is clear that fairly advanced, high-security applications manage well without SIM-cards as we already can connect to my bank and identify myself from any device, and move large amounts of money. This system uses only a software. We can access my email using a personal username and code, software only. Facebook and Skype allow messaging, voice call and video call without a phone number. Telecom is very much controlled by global standards that change only slowly and OTT applications and service are getting better in providing product over the Internet bypasses their control.